Reflections on the Idea of Race

Black Lives Matter Protest, NYC, Nov 2014, Wikimedia Image
Black Lives Matter Protest, NYC, Nov 2014, Wikimedia Image

By Prashanta Tripura for

Baltimore is the latest flashpoint involving massive protests and outbreaks of violence in response to police brutality against Black youths in the US.  Not too long ago, similar turns of events unfolded in other American cities as well, e.g. in Ferguson, Missouri. 

Now it so happens that in both Ferguson and Baltimore, the individuals whose deaths sparked waves of protests had surnames – Gray and Brown respectively – that are homonymous with two common color terms in English.  Moreover, one of the six police officers accused of being responsible for the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore is a Black female sergeant with the surname White!  While such names are quite common among English speaking communities of various ethnicities, I am pointing out the coincidental irony involved in Blacks having surnames such as White, Gray or Brown in order to draw attention to more substantive incongruities that exist at another level, in terms of the very idea of race as it is commonly used by many.

To anyone familiar with the way racial categories are used in the US, it may be quite obvious that although someone may actually be ‘gray’, ‘brown’ or even predominantly ‘white’ – so to speak in terms of different degrees of supposed racial admixture – he or she may still be classified as Black socially.   For example, let us consider the case of President Barack Obama.  We all know that his mother was White, while his father was from Kenya.  In theory, someone like Obama could be considered as half-White or half-Black, but in the binary world of Black-White racial divide as found in the US, there has been little room for different shades of gray, which are invariably classified as Black.  Thus someone having only one Black person among several ancestors (say one out of eight great-grand parents) would usually be classified as Black socially and in many cases legally and administratively as well.   Such a scheme rests heavily on the strong social stigma attached to Black ancestry, a situation that is comparable to the dynamics of the caste system in South Asia, where children of a Brahmin married to a non-Brahmin cannot claim high caste status.


In Bangladesh, a book on races by the Soviet anthropologist Mikhail Nesturkh, available in Bangla translation, was a major source of older ideas about 'races'.
In Bangladesh, a book on races by the Soviet anthropologist Mikhail Nesturkh, available in Bangla translation, was a major source of older ideas about ‘races’.  (Image:  Part of Nesturkh’s book cover, taken from the internet)

In contemporary anthropology, a discipline that this author has been affiliated with and as practiced in the best universities of the world, the idea of race as a biological concept has been largely abandoned on scientific as well as political grounds.  Scientifically, the idea of race as based on criteria such as skin colour and other visible physical features has proven inadequate in terms of explaining all the overt variations and overlaps found among humanity as a whole, as well as the complex realities found at the genetic level.  Politically, we are all aware of how racist notions about the supposed superiority or inferiority of different ‘races’ have led to atrocities such as the Holocaust, the Apartheid, and racial segregation in the US until the 1960s.   Yet, despite our sciences and political sensibilities urging us to abandon the idea of race, it is still commonly used as a social construct, while various types of references to the same term can be found to be made in law and other professional fields.  Let me give two examples, one based on a personal experience from Berkeley, and the other related to some observations in the context Bangladesh and Bangladeshis.


My first example is related to a story of my getting mugged near the campus of the University of California, Berkeley, where I used to be a graduate student.  Although the main point about race only appears at the very end of my story, I am narrating it at some length since some of the details involved are interesting in themselves.

In the summer of 1987, one evening I was walking alone along a street that ran from Berkeley to Oakland.  I was at a relatively quiet residential area right outside our campus.  I had taken out cash from an ATM while running an errand, and as I headed back to campus, I saw a couple of men whom I had already passed by once earlier loitering suspiciously in a dark area on the sidewalk.  I remembered reading some safety tips that advised crossing the street on such situations.  I did that, only to realize that the men that I was trying to avoid did the same and were coming towards me.  The safety tips that I had gone through did not prepare me for this, so I was not sure of what to do.  Anyway, upon crossing the street, I tried to walk in the opposite direction but the two men caught up with me.  The standard safety tip for such situations is not to struggle, nor to cry for help.  However, as the two men grabbed me, and reached for my wallet inside one of the pockets of my trousers, I started struggling and crying out ‘Help! Help!’ almost instinctively.  Fortunately, I was not harmed physically as the muggers released me and took off as soon as they got hold of my wallet.

During my brief scuffle with the muggers, although there was a steady flow of cars on the street, none stopped for me.  However, upon hearing my screams, a young man had come out from a nearby house, and he started chasing the men who were running away with my wallet.  Moreover, a pedestrian coming from the opposite direction realized what was happening, and tried to grab one of the fleeing men from behind, and managed to hold on to a jacket worn by that person who simply slipped out of it and kept running.  In the meantime, the other Samaritan who had come out of a nearby house called 911, and struck up a conversation with me as we waited for the police to arrive.  Upon learning that I was a foreign student, the young man spoke very apologetically and said to me, “What a bad impression this experience will leave in your mind about our country!”  I had to comfort him by saying something like what follows, “Actually, we have muggers in our country as well, so I am not going to judge your country by this incident.”

Anyway, if all the help that I received up to this point in my story was rather uncommon, all that happened next were even more extraordinary.  After the police arrived – they did so fairly quickly – when the jacket left behind by the muggers was handed over, they discovered a car key in one of its pockets.  It was a BMW car key, and after looking around a bit, the police found a matching car parked nearby!  It was probably a stolen car which nonetheless must have contained important clues left by the suspects.   However, it was for the police to look into such matters.  Personally, despite remaining calm on the surface, I was rather shaken by the experience, and was very thankful when one of the police officers who had come to the scene – a Korean American man whom we shall call Kim henceforth – offered me a ride to my campus residence.  On the way, when I expressed my anxiety as to whether the muggers would come after me, Officer Kim assured me that the last person the muggers would want to face again was me!

As I tried to get over the shock of getting mugged for the first time in the fifth year of my stay in the US, two interesting developments occurred in the following couple of days.  First, I got a phone call from someone who informed me that they had found my wallet with its contents – except for cash – strewn all around on a sidewalk.  I took a friend with me to meet the caller, from whom I was happy to collect my wallet.  As for the second development, a detective came to me and showed me some photos out of which I picked one that looked like the face of one of the muggers.  He told me that I might be contacted again if needed, and sure enough, as soon as the new semester started, I received a subpoena that asked me to be present at a court hearing as a witness in a case involving the ‘People of the State of California’ versus an accused who had a name that I vaguely recall to have been something like McCoy.  Anyway, on the day of the scheduled hearing, I found two familiar faces in the courtroom: one was Officer Kim, and another was ‘Mr. McCoy’, who looked very much like one of the muggers whom I had encountered earlier.  There was something about his look that I remembered quite vividly.

However, when I stood on the witness stand, and was interrogated by the Defense Attorney, I told the court that although I could not be 100% sure that Mr. McCoy was the person who had snatched my wallet, I was 95% sure.  At this point, for some reason that I can only speculate on, the Defense Attorney asked me to identify the racial identity of the muggers that had preyed on me.  I don’t know whether he wanted to suggest the possibility that I could be someone to confuse one Black face for another.  Anyway, instead of answering in the way that the question posed to me demanded, I started questioning the concept of race, leading to agitated deliberations on the part of the Defense Attorney.  I don’t remember the exact details of how the whole exchange went, but the point that I was trying to make was that as a student of anthropology, I had reservations about the concept of race, and that I believed that unnecessary or uncritical uses of racial categories led to perpetuation of racism.  I tried to clarify my point further by adding, “In Bangladesh, where I come from, we too have people of various skin colours, but we don’t categorize them in different races as such, and if someone is apprehended for a crime, we do not talk about what ‘race’ they belong to.”  The Defense Attorney became quite unsettled by my response and started saying something that amounted to the following: “The concept of race has perfect scientific basis, and I expect you to answer my question directly.”  Fortunately, the judge – who happened to be a woman – intervened on my behalf by saying, “I think the witness has clarified his point, so we can move on.”


Before turning our attention to Bangladesh and Bangladeshis, I would like to mention that Berkeley was a place where I felt quite at home.  During the four years that I lived and studied there, I lived mostly at the International House, where students from all over the world as well as the US lived.  However, the university town itself was full of diversity of an even grander scale, and offered a setting in which one could easily blend in.  In terms of ethnic diversity, by the time I left Berkeley for good – which was at the end of 1990 – minority (i.e. non-White) students constituted the majority among the new intakes of undergraduate students.   However, despite the increasing levels of visible diversity, a counter-current that was quite discernible while I was at Berkeley was the tendency for students belonging to different ethnicities to coalesce around themselves and become increasingly more insular.  In such contexts, instead of talking about the melting pot, some commentators had already started looking for new metaphors such as the salad bowl in talking about the emergent trends of inter-ethnic relations in the US.


Unlike in the US, the idea of race is not commonly used as a basis for ethnic divisions in Bangladesh.  But racial notions inherited from the days of British colonial rule – not to mention older categories implanted by the Brahmins – are widely held by educated classes of people, and can be found deeply embedded in various accounts including school textbooks and popular histories.  For example, it is very common for Bengalis to be described as being of ‘mixed’ racial origins, whereas the ethnic minorities of Bangladesh are assigned to homogenous categories that are understood to be racial, e.g. ‘Mongoloid’, ‘Austric’, ‘Dravid’ etc.   As if as a logical culmination of such outmoded thoughts, the Constitution of Bangladesh, as amended in 2011, through the newly added Article 23A introduced some questionable terms to refer to the ethnic minorities of the country.  One of the terms, as found in the official English version of the constitution is ‘minor race’, a category that is rather uncommon in contemporary discourses in relevant fields such as anthropology and international law.

Now, although Bangladeshis do not quite have social categories like Black or White in their own country, many of them do get used to these fairly quickly when they migrate to countries like the US.  They may also imbibe and display the same kind of racism as found in the host countries.  I was freshly reminded of this by a Facebook friend of Bangladeshi origin now living in the US when, a few months ago, an act of police brutality in New York was in the news and we were discussing the matter on Facebook.  In connection to a post relating to this, he commented that ‘racism’ was overplayed by the media in the US.  In the course of the exchange of further comments that followed, I asked his opinion on why there were more Black youths in jail than in college, or whether he was aware of racial epithets that some Bangladeshi Americans used for Blacks.  In response, he called me an illiterate, and left the conversation having unfriended me!

In Bangladesh, the government too continues to ‘unfriend’ or alienate ethnic minorities, who have sought to be recognized as ‘indigenous peoples’ instead of mere ‘tribes’, ‘minor races’ or ‘ethnic sects’ as the constitution now labels them.  On August 9, 2014 – the day an unarmed Black teenager by the name of Machael Brown was fatally shot in Fergusson, Missouri – those observing the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples in Bangladesh were busy denouncing yet another statement made by the government that there are no indigenous peoples in this country, since our constitution does not recognize the term! (Those interested to know the details may look at this news report or a letter to Bangladesh written by this author at that time).


Clearly, racism continues to operate in various forms and shades throughout the world – be it in Balitimore, Berkeley, or Bangldesh.  We must acknowledge this, and start questioning and thinking beyond categories such as Black, White or ‘minor races’ that may end up creating and perpetuating various systems of exclusion and inequalities even when one may use such terms with the intention of breaking down barriers.

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